Buyer's Guide


Why and what to print?


Printing in 3D

3D printing, known as additive manufacturing, is all about creating objects layer by layer according to a 3D design file, typically generated within a CAD programme. Most printers accept STL file formats. When using desktop 3D printers it is important to have a thorough and complete 3D design file. The better you can design your 3D file to be oriented to being built up in layers, the higher the chances the printer has of producing a good quality part.


In its current state of technological development, desktop 3D printers are ideal for design, modelling, fast prototyping or creating objects for form, fit and function testing.


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Which programme does what?


3D Design software vs 3D printer software

There are plenty of CAD/3D design software packages available in the market for example Autodesk and Solidworks. These programmes are where the design file can be created ready to import into the printer software.


Most CAD packages are now compatible with 3D printers, just check that you can export in STL file format.


The software that comes with the 3D printers for example MakerBot Desktop or Cura (Ultimaker) are the programmes in which the design file is prepared for 3D printing. In these software programmes (sometimes known as slicing engines) you can typically orientate, move, scale, re-size and set the design ready for printing, as well as setting resolution and any support material requirements. The programme then converts the file into a printer-readable file.


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Which one is best?


Open spool versus cartridge filament

Open spool filaments can be sourced from a wide range of places, come in a huge array of colours and materials and typically are cheaper to buy, but be sure to invest in good quality filament, as low quality filaments often produce low quality prints and in some cases can even damage your printer (which may not be covered under warranty). However, open spools by their nature mean the filament is exposed to the elements and therefore has a limited shelf life. It can also tangle easily and can be prone to getting kinks and bends, which can cause blockages in the feeding tubes, and reduced quality of your printed parts.


Cartridges, whilst they tend to be more expensive, have a number of benefits, especially in that they are easy to load and use. Their main advantage over open spools is that because they are encased they provide greater protection to the filament from moisture and temperature changes, increasing its longevity. You can be assured of the quality of the filament as it is specifically selected by the manufacturer to be used in their 3D printer and most have microchips to sense the quantity of material left so you don’t run out half way through a print.


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What are the differences in the materials?


PLA v ABS v PHA v XT v Exotics 3D printing filament

There are a number of materials that desktop 3D printers can use. The most common are PLA and ABS.


PLA is bio-degradable, derived from renewable, starch-based resources. PLA is a great all-round printing material. It is flexible and forgiving so it is great for large parts.  ABS is a strong plastic and very durable, but its strength and structure can make it prone to warping when printing large parts, so we recommend it for smaller, more detailed prints. 


PLA/PHA is a combined material. The PHA makes the filament less brittle and tougher, with good layer adhesion properties and reduced warping tendencies.


XT is a new co-polyester high strength and high toughness material that is ideal for printing functional and engineering parts.


Some desktop 3D printers can use dissolvable support materials such as HIPS or PVA, which are good for more intricate parts


There is also an increasing amount of more exotic and specialist materials being developed for use with desktop 3D printers, including flexible filaments, wood, metal composites, carbon fibre and tougher materials. Depending on the 3D printer, some can accommodate these more specialist materials, so please contact us for advice.


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What’s the difference?


Heated bed or non- heated bed and enclosed 3D printing chamber

There is much debate over this!


Some argue that a heated bed will reduce the risk and amount of warping during printing as the heat helps to cool the part more evenly. Others claim it does not have a big impact. Our view is that warping is caused by many factors, and purely having a heated bed cannot solve this issue. It is more important to choose a printer and a material that will suit your needs, than specifically looking for one with or without a heated bed.


An enclosed chamber can also help to reduce warping as it maintains a more stable temperature throughout the printing process. If the chamber is controlled, this has the biggest effect, as the internal temperature is constant and provides a consistent environment. Enclosed chambers also help to increase safety as it helps to prevent hands from creeping inside the printer whilst in action, ideal for educational establishments.


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Which is best?


Open source versus closed source 3D printing

Open source by its very nature means many aspects of the technology are made available freely to the community. 3D printers that are open source tend to have a stronger community network and support. Not only is the printer technology and software open source, but also open source printers typically use open spool filament, rather than cartridges. This approach lends the 3D printer to be more open to experimenting with new settings, upgrades and materials. It’s a good choice for you if you like to experiment and need flexibility to use a wide range of materials.


Closed source is where the manufacturer develops software, technology and materials specifically designed to that printer and it cannot be tweaked or modified. This is fantastic for those new to 3D printing, or those who just want to focus on the printing. The manufacturer invests a huge proportion of funding and development into creating excellent software and materials that are fine-tuned, so you can be assured of the consistent quality output you will receive.


Both open and closed source printers should have regular software updates and enhancements.


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Microns, resolution and x, y and z?


3D printing jargon

A micron is equal to one millionth of a metre. It is normally used to refer to the layer height, also known as print resolution or Z height. So 100 microns is equal to 0.1mm. The lower the micron, the better the resolution.


But Z height (resolution) is not the only thing that matters to get good prints. Printing at 20 microns (0.02mm) will take a lot longer to achieve and the visual difference between 20 and 60 will be limited, as we are talking about 0.04 of a millimetre!  It’s more important to have a good balance of x (width), y (height) and z (layer height) accuracy to produce good quality parts. The material and settings also have a big impact on the quality of your prints.


Read our blog on microns, resolution & layer height explained for more information.


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I want one, but which one?


3D printers

There are a number of desktop 3D printers available on the market, but which one is right for you? They all offer varying qualities on build size, resolution, number of print heads, colour capabilities, types of material, etc. Trying to decide can be a minefield!


The best place to start is, what do you want to print? We select the best printers in the market, and are experts in their strengths and their limitations, so contact us to discuss your requirements in more detail.


It is also important to think about how reliable your printer will be, and if you can get technical support in the future from a reputable manufacturer, or supplier like CREAT3D.


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I want small detailed parts, which printer type is best?


FDM versus SLA 3D printing

FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling), also known as Extrusion or FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) 3D printers are the most common form of desktop 3D printer currently on the market. They work by extruding filament (typically plastic) into very thin layers which cool quickly so the next layer can be added into the finished part. There is a wide range of printers with differing capabilities as to the size, accuracy and detail of part they can print.


SLA (Stereolithography) 3D printers are less available at desktop level prices currently. However, they are generally better suited to printing very small intricate parts with high detail. SLA desktop 3D printers are typically resin based which use lasers or light to cure the part into its finished shape.


If you are unsure, contact us to discuss your needs in more detail and our expert team will be able to walk and talk you through the different options best suited to your requirements.


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